Couch Wisdom : Björk

Red bull music academy, 25 septembre 2017

The Icelandic iconoclast meditates on her homeland, the importance of family and a remarkable career guided by musical intuition in her lecture from RBMA Montréal 2016

EMMA WARREN A lot of us will have come to your DJ set last night, and I wondered, where are you on the spectrum of planning versus intuition when you’re choosing what to play for people ?

BJÖRK I think, obviously, I’m the worst live DJ mixer ever. I leave that to the experts. Got my really good friend Leila Arab in London, and she’s born to live mix, just born for that sort of conversation or assault element. She’s really – psssheww – like that. Maybe I have a lot of weaknesses when it comes to DJing, but maybe my forté is the musicologist’s nerdy thing, and I was very flattered when one of my engineers told me I had the biggest iTunes collection she’d ever seen. So I think what I like to do is a journey that starts in one place and then goes somewhere else. That’s why I like DJing like last night, three hours, where the first hour was a challenge, testing, how long can I play Jürg Frey and get away with it in the club ? I obviously got nervous and ended up mixing all these other things into the minimalist. So I’m not sure it was minimalist anymore. Probably maximalist.
So I think how spontaneous I am, I actually prepare the songs very well. I collect them all. But I’m more spontaneous in how I mix them, the crossfades. I’ve chosen all the songs, but where they start and where they crossfade is done in the moment. I also like to have little themes. Yesterday I was using a lot of birds, Venezuelan birds that David Toop recorded, actually, in the ’70s. That was one of his first things he did, was hang out in an Amazonian jungle and record birds. And there were a lot of flutes. So that was a little theme. But I like the steep curve from very, very slow, nothing music, to the most frantic thing ever. I’m quite fond of these kinds of dynamics.

EMMA WARREN Some of these sets have been quite long – five hour sets, three hour sets. I was quite interested in the idea of endurance, particularly since I went to see the exhibition by the artist Ragnar Kjartansson – I apologize for the mangling of his surname – and he really is into endurance, singing one phrase over and over for six hours, sitting in an Icelandic hut for six hours playing songs. I think only 150 people went to go see him for that one – I felt quite convinced he was singing all that time. I wondered whether that kind of commitment to endurance was something Icelandic in character ? Or something you connected with, anyway.

BJÖRK That’s very poetic. I think maybe it’s a little too flattering. Ragnar is amazing. I’m his biggest admirer. But the DJing thing, for me, comes more from hanging out with my mates in New York ten years ago, and I was going, I want the daytime DJing, where you actually listen to the song, and you can play a whole symphony for an hour and have a cup of coffee. Where you have to first do that, a listening session, and then gradually go through, add a couple of songs with beats, and then end the night topless on the table, disco dancing. That means that it was a success. So we actually started DJing in Housing Works ten years ago, which is a secondhand bookshop, and we would start DJing at four in the afternoon. The theme was basslines. We would start with symphonies and cello concertos, and just sit there in the daylight with our kids and drink coffees. And then at a certain moment, when the sun went down, we would have one glass of something. The night would end where we go berserk, but it would usually be a group of people all DJing together. So it’s a bit different when I’m on my own.

EMMA WARREN I have to say that sounds like a lovely grown-folks way to rave up.


EMMA WARREN So who would be “we ?” Who are the kind of people you were doing this with ? Friends and family, or other musicians who were around in New York at that time ?

BJÖRK We started doing it with Brandon Stosuy, David Longstreth and Alex Ross. Then there’s been other people who come in and out of that group – Robin Carolan. We started doing it for ourselves, but then we invited a few people in. So it comes from that a little bit, and a lot of sharing songs as well. Like show and tell.
Me and Richard, Aphex Twin, we still send each other songs all the time.

EMMA WARREN I was interested in how your relationship with nightclubs and dancefloors had changed over time from those early Milk Bar days, where you’re recording songs in the toilet of the Milk Bar, to now. Because even if you’re someone who loves dancefloor music and soundsystems to death, your relationship with it changes over time. But it sounds like the way it’s changed for you is you’re fixing it, so it becomes something you can do with your family. It must be quite a creative environment for you as well. Those daytime sessions sound pretty nourishing.

BJÖRK I’ve always liked this whole “all generations hang out together” thing. I had kids early. I’ve got six younger brothers and sisters. In Iceland, a small birthday party with only the closest relatives is about a hundred people. We’re still in that 18th century idea where there isn’t this generational gap. So I’ve always liked this healthy partying together thing.

EMMA WARREN So when you’re thinking about musical exchange across different periods in life, years on the planet, can you tell us about some of the people who you got really great music from recently, some who have more years on the planet than you, and some who are younger ?

BJÖRK You mean, like, inspirational musicians ?

EMMA WARREN I’m interested in the musical exchanges you’ve got going on. The people in your life who send you music, and who you send music to, who are at either end of that spectrum, age-wise.

BJÖRK I’m really blessed to have a few people who we email each other. That’s what makes the internet so amazing as well : you wake up, and there’s two to three tunes. Me and Richard, Aphex Twin, we still send each other songs all the time. And Leila Arab. Andy from Plaid. Alex Ross. Robin Carolan. Alejandro Arca. I’m probably missing out, but these are probably the people who, every song I find amazing, I will send to them. And they will send me tons back. It’s a constant conversation that I really thrive from.

EMMA WARREN Can you tell me some things you’ve sent out to people, or received recently that you’ve really felt–

BJÖRK Maybe my new Jürg Frey fever. I totally blame it on Alex Ross. So I’ve just been listening in my car, my Land Rover, in the mountains in Iceland. Extremely slow piano music. Every few seconds you think it’s stopped, and your stereo is broken. When I played that last night, I was like, “Yes ! I can play it in a club.” I just discovered there’s a whole group around him, and a lot of other composers that I’ve just been opened up to and been listening to on YouTube now. I just ordered tons of DVDs – CDs, sorry – and I’ve got to go through a big pile. And obviously I send it to all my mates, the ones I told you about earlier. We all got Jürg Frey fever.

EMMA WARREN Some people may know about his work, some people not so much. Can you tell briefly who he is ?

BJÖRK The short version is that he is born in the ’50s. He’s from Switzerland. And if you think that minimalists are like Steve Reich and those guys who inspire us, well, they’ve got nothing on him. He’s five times slower. It’s more meditative. And for some reason I think I can communicate more to it, my generation, because it’s more like a meditative, stark. I feel a lot of the ’80s minimalism with Philip Glass and all those guys was a comment on the consumerist culture and Campbell soup repetition, and this is not that bothered by stuff like this. It’s way slower.

EMMA WARREN Talking of composers, there’s a really nice John Cage quote about utopia being a multiplicity of individuals who are generally in the habit of getting along with each other. It was a quote that Alex Ross used in one of the essays he wrote about you, which I thought was actually a lovely way to think about utopia, and achievable way to think about utopia, and I wondered what you feel to be a utopian place ? Where are the environments in which you feel really great ?

BJÖRK Obviously, I’m very biased. I love Iceland. I feel very blessed to come from a place like this that actually happens to have the cleanest air and most space, no army. Sorry – we got no army. Sorry to rub it in. So in that way it’s really ideal. As a person, I really like this village vibe, the fact that Reykjavik only has 150,000 people, and everybody knows somebody from somewhere or is the brother of someone. You can’t get away with shit.

EMMA WARREN It’s the whole, like, “I’m going to tell your mom.” Everybody knows someone’s mom. It’s an incredible way of keeping control on things.

BJÖRK Yes. So obviously I really like Iceland, but I understand that what you’re talking about is more utopia, a different thing. I really believe in utopia. In a simple way it’s about knowing what you want, and aiming for making a bubble of what you think the ideal thing would be. I think it’s really important to be really clear about that and very determined. Then, of course, only half of it is going to come true because reality is different from the ideal. So I don’t think it’s escapist. You have to be really clear about your dream and then be aware that it is a dream. Reality is this other beast that you surf and deal with on a day-to-day basis. I’m a big believer in utopia and this reaching out for the dream. We need it very much, as a human species.

EMMA WARREN The word utopia has come up in the few things you’ve said about the new record you’re working on. I know you don’t want to talk about it in any detail because it’s fragile and it needs its own space, but I wondered if it would be accurate to say that Biophilia was very much about the whole universe, Vulnicura was very much about the reality of one broken heart, and with you using this word utopia about happiness, is it fair to say that the music you’re writing now is looking out into the world again ?

BJÖRK It’s probably a bit too early to talk about the new album. I’m still in the bubble. As much as I’d like to, I can’t see it from the outside. It’s very convenient for me that usually I do interviews afterwards, because there may be two to three years since I wrote the songs. And then I go, “Oh, that’s what it is.” But when you’re in the middle of it, you can’t see out. The little I can tell you is, yes, I think I was very aware about utopia, the fact that I’m curious about the dream, about what of it is real and what of it is not real.
Celebrating the unreality of it, especially in this day and age where technology can be very helpful and it’s very easy to sketch up digitally what you want. I got my laptop in 1999, and it totally liberated me from the studio. I could do 90% of my music in my bedroom. I could basically make up the dream but make the dream real. I think technology is really helping us with that. But on the other side, if you really want to go into utopia, what I’m really concerned about it is the ecology, global warming, the environment.
This is something we have to be realistic about. If we know how to make iPhone 7, we should know how to get rid of fossil fuels and live in a totally green world. We should have done that a while ago. We should get that done now.

EMMA WARREN Speaking of utopia, I wanted to talk to you about the women’s strike, the original one in Iceland in 1975. We have the photograph on the screen here because this taps into what you’re saying about your utopian interest at the moment is, around the environment. This was an iconic moment in Icelandic history, where 90% of the women went out on strike. I believe that when it was originally called Women’s Strike, less people joined, but when they renamed it Women’s Day Off, everyone came out. I just wondered, were you there on that day ?

BJÖRK Yes. I was ten. With my mom. We just had another one.

EMMA WARREN Is it an annual thing, or was it just that it happened a couple of days ago as a response to something else ?

BJÖRK No, I think it’s still 14% that women have as wages less than guys. Even though that gap is the least in the world today, in Iceland – bragging, sorry – we’re still trying to get rid of it. So women went yesterday, left their jobs at 14.38 o’clock, because that’s how much percentage there is in the gap, and went downtown and protested. There’s really nice footage of them on YouTube now, everybody chanting. I was very proud of them.

EMMA WARREN What I’m interested in is your nine, ten year old self – you went out there with, I’m guessing, your family – if that sight sowed the seeds of what you generally refer to as punk or hardcore. Whether or not that gave you the punk or hardcore feeling of seeing all the women in your community stand up to do what they wanted to.

BJÖRK It had a big effect on me. I was in the music scene in Iceland as a teenager. Half of it was girls, and I was brought up to think that the girls are just as important and as strong as guys. So it wasn’t until I went abroad that I would hit walls. I was maybe 30 years old. So I thought that put light on this, and try to show other women and guys that a society exists and functions where we are equal.

EMMA WARREN Did that inform the way you were in bands with lots of guys in your teens ?

BJÖRK Part of that scene, there were a lot of girls.

EMMA WARREN For me, I think, what a wonderful thing for a child to come up and see all those people standing up for themselves, and absolutely something to be very proud of. If we’re going to take it back to some of the stuff that’s happening now, some of the people here will have seen the VR exhibition. The new video has a capacity for you to use your hands. Are these representations of your hands ?

BJÖRK The “Family” video was made by me and James Merry with Andy Huang. Yes, it was something we talked about from the beginning. Out of all the songs, this is the one song off the album that was like the mother, the core of the whole album. We started talking about this song a lot. The fact that the character of the album does this backward bend, and it’s a way of self-help. She has this wound she has to deal with, and she sews it herself with her hand. Then she stands up and walks away. It’s a really simple thing, but it echoes through the whole album. The hands you’re talking about are Andy Huang’s representation of that. It’s been a really enjoyable collaboration between me, Andy and James. We’ve done a few of the videos off the album together, and that came out of that.

EMMA WARREN You mentioned before about gesture and movement can reflect sound. Can expand upon how you use your hands in that video.

BJÖRK I understand enough about myself to know that there are certain movement that, if they’re really simple, can feel shamanistic. They can be like an entry point into the emotion. What I’m always trying to do is unite the music and the visual and the physical and the spiritual and the emotional. It’s an ambitious task, and most of the time I don’t succeed, but there’s always that effort there, and once in a while it happens. They all line up and some liberation happens, and you get rid of all the luggage. You get to continue your journey. For me, those kinds of movements, I try to tap into them as something really simple and ancient – something like yoga or tai chi are like keys to your body, and something primordial. If you do the right rhythm, which obviously pop music is a lot about. It’s almost like a mantra that you repeat, and that’s how it receives its magic, and you go to the next level. So it’s some sort of an effort to try to embrace that.

EMMA WARREN How much repetition and next-leveling did you have to do for the string arrangements, that you took from Vulnicura and made into another piece, which you’re now taking out live ?

BJÖRK That was different because it wasn’t literally physical. The arrangements for me is the other part of my brain, where it’s more the music nerd in me. I will usually write walking outside in nature. It will be very impulsive, and I don’t know exactly what I’m doing. Once I’ve done that I will sit down and let some time pass. The academic in me will sit there and say, “This needs ten violas.” Then I’ll sit there for a month. The string arrangements for Vulnicura took me way longer than writing the album, or singing it, or writing the lyrics. It took me a year to do. I did a lot of embroidery and knitting as a kid, and the arrangements really tapped into that tradition. It’s like needlework. I really enjoy it. It takes a lot of time. I worked with local Icelandic musicians, and we have a different kind of relationship. It’s about costing billions and you go to the studio and it takes two hours to record it, like in the big cities.
Björk – Dark Matter
In Iceland you just hang out together, cook together, rehearse together. The choir that I worked with for Biophilia, we would meet for four hours every week for four months. It took a really long time to develop the arrangements. I would start with all the chords and then move things up and down octaves, and do all the dynamics together in the room. That’s another part of me almost, the music nerd in me that does the arrangements. Because I was in bands for ten years and you can get stuff done that way
Were the string arrangements about feeling that this was the right record sonically to flex that muscle ? Or is it about needing an extra strong dose for the cure, emotionally ?
It’s a bit of both. I try to tap into both things. Every album has an emotional theme. I really believe the few moments you get it right, not a very good percentage, is when you manage to unite your craft and collaborators – the emotion and the story you are telling is no longer just full of ego and self-indulgence. The more universal it is, the better. It’s like a strange line you walk between the self and selflessness. But with the strong arrangements, for sure, going back to Vulnicura, it was definitely about me sitting for hours upon hours and getting it totally right, to marry it to the emotion. I think most albums before, it’s all happened together, the arrangements and the beats and the melodies and the lyrics have grown side by side.
But Vulnicura was very topsy-turvy. The melody just came first with some crazy-ass lyrics, and I thought, “Should I refine them ?” I read about that in books. But then I thought, no, this album will lose everything if I do that. Because the subject matter was so raw and visceral, I was scared of it. I felt the best way to deal with it was to make the string arrangements ten times more graceful, ten times more caring. Like “Band-Aid,” like “Complex,” “Vulva” and “Refined.” It took me five minutes to write a song, but three months to do a string arrangement, and that made sense in some weird way.
For me, the key moment in the strings album is there’s a viola organista version of “Black Lake,” which has a section four minutes in that’s just a string, a sound, and so the song is broken down to this one very universal sounding exposition of raw pain. You carry it for a minute before the warmth comes back again. How did you walk that line between that intensity of emotion and bringing people back to a more comfortable place ?
Björk – Black Lake (Viola Organista Version)
It’s really intuitive. I do a lot of gigs. When you’ve done as many gigs as I’ve done, you learn in the room with people how far you can push it, and it’s fun to go and push it and take it further, and then reel in. With a recording that’s very different, because what you’ve made has to make sense in all these different rooms around the world. I believe you can be just as immersive or just as visceral. But there’s a certain grace or refinement that if you weave around it in the arrangement and even in the mix, the sound, the mastering, a lot happens there, and then it becomes this more spongy vessel that can take all the speakers and all the different rooms it will eventually travel to. But you don’t have to sacrifice any of the emergency. It’s just a question of how you wrap it up.
For all the people here, the lesson is to go ahead and do what you feel is right in the moment, and not to edit yourself until after it’s all out.
For me at least, now, we’re talking about how we did Vulnicura. There’s only a few times in a person’s life that you have that emergency feeling that you’re dealing with. If you do that every single album, it’s going to be boring. It’s going to lose its power, importance. The album before was, for me, very much about celebration of sound, the galaxy, and that was done in a very different way. That’s just as important. I like all emotions to be equally important : the celebrational, the shy. I also love music that’s just fluffing-about-in-your-kitchen music, making toast. I think that’s very important music, too.
What are your “making toast” tunes at the moment ?
I’ve been listening a lot to this R&B singer from East London called Nao. It’s very happy-go-lucky. That music is just as important.
How do the string arrangements you’ve worked on relate to the scores you’ve worked on for the last eight years ? What kind of undertaking has that been ?
When I did Biophilia, we moved to an island in the Caribbean and I rented this house. I started mapping out what musicology was, for me. I was so excited about touchscreens. Finally this thing had arrived where I can actually map out how I feel about musicology. There’s rhythm and counterpoint – that’s obviously pendulums. Arpeggios – there’s lightnings. I wrote the songs from that. Something happened to me then because I was going back to my music school years – I went to music school for five to 15 – and one of the things that came up is me wanting to erase this difference between notation and MIDI. This was in 2008-9, and there was a lot of negativity among my fellow musicians over live streaming, downloading, how to make a living. I thought, this idea of the CD, this is only around for 20, maybe 30, years. And that wasn’t a thousand or two thousand years ago. Documentation of music is timeless, but there are different methods for periods. So I thought, let’s put MIDI online that you can sell, they can print it out and play it on their pipe organ. Or they could make their karaoke machine play it and you could sing on top. Or you could just buy the audio recordings but can watch the MIDI files. It was basically about blurring these lines and trying to update it to now.
One of the things that came out of that was my scores. I’ve been asked since I was a teenager, “Do you want to do these acoustic guitar books of your songs ?” Somehow that doesn’t feel right. I didn’t know back then why. But now that I’m older and a bit more experienced, it makes more sense to me that I’m not in the guitar tradition. I’m not part of this canon, the rock & roll, three-chord things – which is very important, but I’m somewhere else. What we wanted to do was make versions of the songs that would be easy to play for piano, harpsichord or pipe organ. For a person who’s studied for five or ten years. So it’s like various difficulties. We started all the arrangements from each song, and try to make it all into just a piano arrangement. The project started in 2008 with the beginning of Biophilia, just it’s just ready now, eight years later, because it was really time-consuming.
One more reason was that the people I work with, M/M from Paris, the designers I work with, we wanted to blur this line between notation and font. Why hasn’t this classical notation from a few hundred years ago – it’s a bit boring – why doesn’t it have a font ? That basically makes smoke come out of all the printing machines. That’s been a riddle we’ve been trying to solve the last year or so. But I think we’ve solved it now, and we’ve got some crazy notation font. So there’s a book coming out with a selection of my songs from the last 15 years with versions for keyboard to be played.
Can you talk about what it took to take a song like “Pagan Poetry” or “Declare Independence” and shift it into its piano or harpsichord parts ?
Björk - Declare Independence
I didn’t want to do anything too crazy. They’re actually quite faithful to the original arrangements, trying to make the romantic songs romantic and so on, so that they would actually sound good. But there were some attempts, especially some of the more percussive tracks, like it was fun to do a song like “Pluto” on harpsichord. I really enjoy this translating from Icelandic to English, from English to Icelandic, from notation to techno and back from rhythmic to orchestral. I do that quite a lot. A few weeks ago we did a version of “Pluto” with a 30-piece orchestra where we notated all the rhythms.
What did you learn about arrangement from some of the people you worked with early on, before you started to do your own arrangements ?
I stopped my music school at 15. I’ve always looked at my work at school, especially the bits of about the arrangements. On my first album, Talvin Singh took DATs, which we had at that time, two songs, to Bombay and recorded arrangements to them. Basically we had no budget and had to do it all ourselves. He was going there anyways and it was all very DIY. He brought back “Venus as a Boy” and “Come to Me.” On the next album, Post, I got Eumir Deodato to do a couple of arrangements for me. I never got more involved. I would write several of the melodies that that violins played, and I would sit next to Deodato and sing them to him or play them on a piano. And the chords on “Isobel” or “Hyperballad,” these are my melodies. With Homogenic I was more brave and did the string arrangements for “Bachelorette” and “Jóga.” I actually played them on the synthesizer with strong sounds. Eumir Deodato would hear that and orchestrate it. Every album was a step forward.
Björk - Venus As A Boy
On Vespertine it was a huge orchestra, panoramic sound, so I got more involved. On Medúlla I did all the arrangements myself with a choir and everything. That was easier for me to work with a human voice, something I’m very familiar with. And then the brass arrangements on Volta and the choir arrangements on Biophilia, I was printing them out and handing them out the members. On Vulnicura I did the dynamics and everything on the score. It’s been a really slow, gradual progression. But with Talvin Singh, Eumir Deodato, also with Vince Mendoza, who was very involved in the Vespertine album. And Matt Robertson has been my musical director for my live gigs, and he’s been really helpful listening to the album versions and helping me to – if there’s something that needs to, let’s say a choir needs to be arranged for strings, he will help me transfer it between instruments. But I’m getting more and more self-sufficient. Like, I’m 95% now.
What do you think your teacher Mr. Birgisson, from your early days at school, would think about your wheeling back into a world that he would recognize as more of the music school ? He was the guy, wasn’t he, who told you that you could do things differently and introduced you to some of the other musicians who were on the leftfield of the classical realm. What do you think he would think about the work you are doing now ?
Sorry, who ?
Was it Mr. Birgisson ? Sigfus Birgisson ?
Oh, wow, okay. He was amazing. I met him in the pool all the time.

As opposed to a theoretical question, this could be an actual one.
Yeah, I mean, that’s Iceland for you. I don’t know, I’d have to ask him. I bet some of these teachers I had are rolling their eyes and going, “I told you.” But I still think we all know this : The arrogance of youth is important. It defines you. What Stravinsky said in his little short book which I can’t remember the name of now, which was basically based on lectures he did, was like, “It’s great to hate.” Which basically means when you are starting out and you kind of can’t stand 90% of the music out there you go, like, “I hate trombones, I hate them so much, I am about to explode ! Your breakbeats ? I’ve had enough of it !” It’s kind of cool to just do it, to really hate it. When I was in music school, I was like, “I can’t stand Bach and Beethoven. They’re just German old guys.” Just be furious, just totally go there.
Remember, though, that it’s a tool to help you to start knowing what you don’t want, but the point is to figure out what you want. And once you figure out what you want, you have to water that and make that grow. So this kind of “great to hate” business is sort of about pulling out all the weeds and really focusing and trying to figure out what your palette is. And then, what your entry point is if you re-address strings – like I did, I’m totally guilty of, I so slagged them off in my teenage years – in what roundabout way are you going to come and include it again and from a different point of view ? I think that is really interesting, too, that’s sort of what makes us human and gives us a sense of time.
I love that when you listen to musicians, what they did when they were 15 and what they did when they were 40, and then again when they were 70, and the fact that they are referring back and forth between stuff. I find that really exciting.
I think it’s always very wonderful to keep a very hard edge of things that you’re not into as much as it is to embrace the things that you love. You talked about pulling up the weeds. What weeds are you pulling up at the moment. Which things are out ?
It’s like in and out of fashion.
It’s not fashion, it’s just feeling, isn’t it ? What are you not feeling ?
Yeah, it is. It’s totally. Good question. I’m obviously a bit bored with strings at the moment. It’s that teenage side of me, which I O.D. on something I love it so much, it goes over the top and I’m just like [strained gasping] I can never have that ever again. But I’ll see how long it lasts. I did have strings, like I said before, from ’93 all the way up to Medulla. So that was ten years. Then I had ten years of, like, “I can never hear strings ever again.” When I came back to Vulnicura, maybe that was one of the reasons why they were so fresh to me, because I put them on salt for ten years. Good question.
Yeah, I mean, obviously Vulnicura was very narrative, wasn’t it. I don’t listen to that much narrative music at my house. I really like music that’s more complex and more layered and more instrumental, but when singers sing, I want them to be 1000%. That’s a good question, with a narrative element... Yeah. I probably can’t say anything more at this moment, but there’s definitely a lot of question marks there right now for me. Like, how narrative can a narrative be ?
Oh. We’ll let that one just sit there for a minute. When you’re not arranging strings, which you’re not doing so much of at this moment, I get the impression from what you’ve been saying that you spend a lot of your time editing, that 90% of your music time is spent editing. What does that look like ? What does that mean ?
Yeah, I think, I obviously started using ProTools in 1999, and that’s where I spend 90% of my time. I just really, really love editing. When I did Vespertine, I did it with Sibelius, and then I would record things, and because it was all microbeats, I was collecting all these microbeats and then just using audio files. The whole idea of Vespertine was that it was like 100 channels in each song, but it would take forever to do all the levels. It had this microscopic element to it which was, take the tiniest beat and zoom in and make it huge, and then just going over it so it was not about the hours and the hours and the hours that you spent on just editing and doing levels like a jigsaw puzzle. I mean, I really enjoyed that time because I had just done Homogenic, which was the opposite, which was basically like Led Zeppelin or something. Huge distorted beats, huge strings, huge drama, like head banging myself through the concerts, screaming at the top of my lungs, and then getting really bored with it, and just getting really bored with it and just going, “I want to do the opposite, I want do to secrets and billion details.” But, ah, what was the question again ?

It was about editing – what happens when you’re at that laptop when you’re working on those beats ?
Yeah, one thing I’ve – I don’t know if this is helpful for you or not, especially for you students – but I definitely noticed after I have looked around, because now I have been editing for 17 years and that’s sort of my tool. I’m not a live mixer, I’m not a lot of stuff, but I’m actually a pretty good editor. But I’ve noticed a lot of film directors, they have women editors, like Coppola, and you name, like, ten different women editors. I think women are really good at this, they are really good at zooming out and seeing the big picture and connecting all the dots, and editing is very much about that, and kind of not leaving anything out. Like, you’ve got 12 kids, you’re not just going to feed nine of of them and leave three of them the cold. You’ve got to fucking include all of them, and make them all coexist and make them be friends, and yes, there’s aggression and problems and all these things, but everything has permission or allowance to be there. It just takes time. It’s about equilibrium.
I remember once spending two weeks undoing some crazy vocal arrangement, and Alejandro – Arca – coming and hearing it, and Alejandro being Alejandro just got one tear in his eye, like, “Oh, it’s like this form of praying you do.” And I was so flattered I don’t think I’ve ever been that flattered. But I was like, “Oh. Wow. I’ve never really thought about it that way.” But you’re basically fine-tuning and weaving something. And you just spend hours and hours on it and then you get it to the form you want it to be.
What is your preferred kind of set-up, what do you prefer to use ?
I like Sibelius. I use it a lot, actually, even for beats. I like writing beats on Sibelius, really weird chunky sounds, and then transferring it to live musicians or... What I did a lot for string arrangements for Vulnicura for example, I use Melodyne a lot. I love Melodyne. I will put all my vocal takes, and I will make one of it, and I will make many of the same one, and I will make harmonies so there are five-note harmonies, but no two harmonies will be the same. So I will spend weeks on harmonies that you can maybe hear in the beginning of “Thunderbolt” in the choir arrangement – that’s the most obvious. And then I will transfer that into Sibelius, into the strings, but maybe the melodies came from me originally improvising. And then I will take that and move it into ProTools. So I will do a lot of back and forth until it sort of finds its little, you know, home.
Björk - Thunderbolt
I mean, you’ve obviously always had a highly evolved sense of what a piece of music could do. But do you think generally people who listen to music have become more evolved as well, like, more used to hearing different time signatures or different ways of doing things.
Good question. I think so. I wonder sometimes how much things actually change. Like, I keep thinking of this imaginary place 200 years ago was maybe somewhere – I don’t know where, actually – but that folk music was very important, it had a lot of patterns, you know, for example, music off in North Africa, it had poetry, it had the intellectualism of poetry, it had pagan tribal patterns and rhythms, it had beautiful expressions of performance. And it had songwriting, improvisation, you know ? So I think of myself in that sort of box. I think of myself doing 21st century folk music in that sense, that it is about taking day to day life, making a pop song out of it – I prefer the word “folk,” actually – that it can have a tribal rhythm, because we all like dancing, and it can have a bit of poetry and a bit of the mind and the spirit, obviously, and emotions. And I also love the performative aspect of it. That’s one of the reasons I had the viola organista, is that I also love this – or Manu Delago, the percussionist who performed with me live, to have a soloist in a performance. I really love that, too.
So you’re talking about cultures elsewhere in the world that have this, but Northern culture, Arctic Circle culture has this, too. The difference between – that I might see as a British person – the separation between song and poetry is collapsed, isn’t it. Maybe could you tell us the last time you did Vikivaki ?
I’m kind of funny with Iceland and music. I think because so much of it went through my skin as a child that by the time I made my own music, I was doing the “It’s great to hate” method. I just thought it was too much [of a] nationalistic thing going on. Too much Viking helmet shit. When I was in the punk years, I was like, “We need to do music written by a woman or a girl about now, not old stuff.” Then, the one time when I tried to reference my Icelandic roots was in Homogenic, where after three years being in the heat of London with all the beats I was like, “Ok, I want to now invent what is an Icelandic techno beat.” And obviously it’s volcanic, and did all these big distorted beats. But then – oh my God, I keep losing my thread, this is hilarious.
Whether your relationship to some of the Icelandic stuff, which is fairly everyday for people, where they might do kind of Vikivaki, which is this sort of singing/dancing thing that you might do every couple times a year, according to my Icelandic source, Au∂ur, thank you very much.
Yeah, sorry, it’s my scruffy post-DJ head. Yeah, I think after Homogenic, it happened to be for me that Iceland sort of became in fashion. And it was like everybody shooting car commercials there and I was like, “Hmmm, I don’t know about this.” I got really skeptical, and then Volta for me was almost a statement against this, playing hard to get, you know : “I live on a boat, I’m not from a country.” And just being “multiculti” and just thinking : nationalism is cool, yes, but it can be racist and fascists. Also, this cliche of woolen sweater, and dancing Vikivaki, I was like, “Hmmm, I don’t know about this” or at least, I need to approach it from a different point of view.
And actually, funny you mention Vikivaki, because on Vulnicura a song called “Atom Dance” was my attempt to kind of address this in a very very roundabout way, because I was reading Sufi poems and being very obsessed with this kind of devotional Sufism. Then I was like, “How would I do this in Icelandic ? We must’ve had this, but it was just suffocated by the rednecks,” or something. And then just finding it and looking for it, and actually that’s the one lyric on Vulnicura I co-wrote with someone, with my very good friend Oddný Eir who is a philosopher/author, and we talk a lot about stuff. We actually wrote that lyric together trying to make a Icelandic/Vikivaki/Sufi song and one of the reasons it’s in 5/4, it’s more cyclical, about turning in circles, and Vikivaki is actually turning in circles, which obviously the whirling dervishes do in Sufism.
Björk - Atom Dance
What archeologists are finding out more and more is that the Viking history we were told in school wasn’t so black and white. It was actually people came to Iceland earlier, like probably in the 600s – we’ve been told 800s – and there’s a lot of Venetian, Celtic, and more poetic bohemian stuff. And how we’ve been taught the Norse mythology, it’s not so, like, hooligan-esque, it’s more entwined with Sufism and all the other spiritual disciplines that were happening in Europe and the Middle East at the time. So I’ve been sort of playing and reading about those. Who knows, I might even go into this in my old age or something.
You mentioned the kind of Sufi music, and I know you’ve been playing a bit of Abida Parveen songs recently, incredible Pakistani Sufi singer. What it is about her voice and her expression that appeals to you ?
I just heard her and I was just immediately blown away. I just went and got all her albums and drove my family nuts because I would listen to it all day every day for a couple of months. I don’t know what it is. I mean, I’m not really an expert at all on this kind of music, and I’m not going to pretend I am, but from my little point of view, I think it is a discipline. It has been very monopolized by guys and actually women can’t really sing that music much, but she totally just took it and made it raw and emotional and more earthy for me. When I listen to it, it’s more connected to the body, it’s not so cerebral. I can just really connect to it.
With those mashups I played yesterday, which – bragging – I actually did myself, I did those mashups as a birthday present a year ago to Tri Angle label, because I was hanging out with Rabit and Lotic, and none of them had vocalists. And there were all these debates after a few drinks, like what sort of vocalists would fit this music, and they were like, “None.” I was like, “Well, let me prove you wrong.” There were singers out there who were that primordial and that [growls] you know who have that thing, but that sophisticated. So I actually spent a week editing Abida Parveen and several other singers to Tri Angle beats. But I did it in ProTools, so I timestretched and put a lot of work into it, and I played it to them that night as a present. And it was really fun. She’s something else, she’s got some very shamanistic, very divine connections.
I want to ask about your voice shortly, but while we’re kind of talking about other people, can you tell me about your creative relationship with Anohni ?
Yeah, we met, I don’t know, must’ve been 12 years ago now... 11... in New York, and she immediately became one of my best friends. And we just talk and talk and talk when we meet, and it’s really fun. She’s obviously very emotional, and I think she’s more of an Icelandic person – sorry, it’s a bit of a strange thing to say. I don’t know why, but I was hanging out with a lot of people in New York that maybe weren’t that mushy. And then, obviously, we’d start a talk about the environment and urban... and pollution and stuff like that. She sang on Volta which, you know, I did that song about the pregnant suicide bomber, and Anohni came to Jamaica where we recorded the vocals to “The Dull Flame of Desire” and did that song “My Juvenile,” which she actually edited and that was like her work. We sort of had these conversations ever since. Like, I will play her my albums before they are ready and she will comment on it. And she will play me her albums and I will comment on it. And we give each other advice, and she’s just one of the most magical beings in my life, I’m very grateful to have her.
Björk – The Dull Flame Of Desire
Back to you then, for one moment, we’ll talk about voice a bit, and pass some questions out to you good people. But I understand you’ve been taking a new kind of training for the past three years. You know, for someone who already has that voice already, maybe sometimes it’s surprising the fact that you would even still continue training. But I understand you’ve been using a new technique for the past few years. Can you tell us what that is, and what that involves ?
The voice is a very interesting instrument, obviously. Your body is obviously the instrument, and then you’ve got issues like time and emotion, which can sometimes fuck you up. But I try to use it in my advantage. I used to swear a lot in my 20s when I was touring with bands, and let’s just say there was a lot of drinking involved. I had to go early to bed and behave because there was a gig next day and stuff. I would sulk and moan, but I was actually grateful because I ended up with a better pair of… insides. I think taking care of yourself is boring but it’s actually a good thing. It’s supposed to be right ?
I’ve always kind of let it rip in between, so I don’t feel starved or anything. I kind of like letting it rip – not all the time anyway, I like it to be special – so that works really well. But I’ve had to slowly be careful of what I eat, maybe starting like eight years ago where I would have to be careful about gluten and sugar, things like this. I would get hoarse if I eat those things. So that’s kind of really mundane and boring, but it’s actually like, if you look at other people, they have to polish their guitars and put new strings in them and fix the necks and have to do all this shit. When it comes to technique, I was mostly self-taught and had to do mostly singing outdoors, blasting at the top of my lungs and singing really quietly. Basically, my voice is a very acoustic instrument – that’s something that I’m constantly aware of. I’ll maybe do a whole tour and I will stop doing those crazy dynamics and start to project into the microphone more and more, and will lose the dynamic, and the tour will be over and I will start walking outside again and get my dynamics back. So it’s kind of like, it goes back and forth between being a microphone situation and not, and I quite like that.

Then when it comes to teachers, I started having teachers maybe eight years ago when I ran into problems. They taught me several tricks I can use that are very helpful. One thing I have to do is just rest more, you know ? I don’t know – I find sometimes when my voice stops, back in my old days when I was touring with the Sugarcubes and we had to stop touring and just go on a beach somewhere, it usually was also just a spiritual thing and an emotional thing that we’re not meant to do one gig a night for three months now. It’s not right. So even though we’ve been following the voice, it’s actually something we all want to do anyway, you know ? Right now, I’m really more focused on – I want to record a lot and I’ve kind of almost done with my album, I’ve done all the vocals, so I’m really happy with that, that’s really where my head’s at right now, is to just be in a sublime situation where I can walk outside, work on melodies, come back and record them, and even blur that line more and try to make a studio that I can actually take with me on my walks. Sometimes I feel like I write and I sing the best when I’m on top of a mountain, and then I come inside the studio and I’m imitating that experience, so I want to try to actually make a recording facility that I can bring with me on more hikes. But they would have to be really lo-fi, though, because you don’t want to carry heavy shit on your shoulders when you’re singing. So yeah, I mean, I could obviously talk about this forever.
You say you’ve finished the vocals. When will you know the character, how far down the line does it come when you know the main character of the album, what she dreams about, or what she wears, or what her tarot card is, as you’ve said. When will that come ?
Those things always come afterwards. I’ll first just kind of write the only songs I can write. Sometimes when I do those interviews I drink like five liters of cappuccinos and I sound like I know it all, but I actually don’t. Like, when I’m writing, I’m clueless. Any given day I write, I just write the only song I can write that particular day. I don’t to make it look like I sit there and say, “Oh, what sort of song should I write today ?” Because, no way, at all. It’s more afterwards.
And once I’ve arranged the album, which I’m doing now, and you mix it and you master it, which is a really big thing for me, and you’ve heard it so many times that you can actually, time has passed, maybe two or three years from when you wrote the first song, and you go “Oh my God, that song is actually about this.” And then you start seeing what connects the dots, and you go, “Oh, this album is… green.” And then you try to work out what archetype made this album.
That sounds maybe very pretentious – I think it’s been a really slow progression for me. Because I was for ten years in bands in my teenage years, and we would get photographers and video directors and all these people, and we’d be punk snobs, we’d be like, “Ugh, rich people who think about visuals are superficial, the fashion-y types, we’re punks, we don’t care.” And we’d get photos and be like, “What ? That does not look like the song at all.” So I got very lucky. It was a very, very slow progression I thought, actually, if you just think “Ok, this album is very black and white,” or “these songs are very…” Just use this as a rule of thumb, it can help build a bridge to the directors and photographers you work with. It’s a good beginning point to have those things cleared.
Biophilia was the elemental, all these things in the element table, electric blue, copper, and the music teacher who was an airhead, with this red afro with her head in the clouds, and she’s like, kind, pedagogy with nature and music trying to unite the two. I got a harp, I got a crystal. That seems really limiting, but when you work with a director or photographer, they actually seem to welcome these kind of things, because they can put thousands of stuff to that skeleton, and put their own world to it, and I actually found with the directors who are really talented and really secure in their own creativity, they can actually both take on this kind of information and add to it, like, a double or triple from their own universe. Then it becomes this conversation. But that’s always done after the album’s finished, you know ?
Can you tell us about your relationship with microphones ? What do you like to use, how distinct is the way that you use microphones ?
Well. Microphones for me are... I deal with them in the same way I deal with everything. It’s either – do you have this in English ? – it’s either the ankles or the ears. It’s all or nothing, extremes. So I like really dry, private, dictaphone, documentarian style. And then I’ve recorded, actually, a lot of vocals in a microphone called Calrec SoundField. You’re actually not meant to record vocals on it – it’s sort of a microphone you put in a center of the room if you want to record a cricket over there. For example, I’ve recorded a song like “Modern Things” on that. I would just walk up to it, and walk back in the corner, and treat it like it was this take in the whole room. When I want to get something really sensual, like for example “Cocoon” from Vespertine, because it just catches every [makes noises] all these kinds of noises.
Björk - The Modern Things
And then I’ve been singing in a microphone like this, Shure 58, since I was a teenager. I actually record quite a lot of my vocals just on my laptop with two speakers, with an instrumental playing out of my speakers – just into a Shure, because I learned to sing live at a gig. And then there’s the other way, which is sort of songs that I’ve written more when I’ve been walking outside, then I want my voice to be more acoustic, for lack of a better word, then maybe it’s more a Calrec Soundfields.
Also, there was this incredible Finnish guy who in 1997 made a wooden microphone and sent it to me in the post. He made two microphones, and he sent one to me, and one to Michael Jackson, and I’ve recorded a lot of songs on that. It’s really sober, it’s very Finnish in a way. Sober is a good word for it, it doesn’t have any additional fluff.
I come from this kind of punk headspace where it’s not about the gear, it’s about if you want something you should make it with your voice. If you want intimacy or you want... to create it with your voice. The first ten years of my singing was done in dodgy punk clubs, and the first two or three years I sang through a bass amp. The bass amp had two plugs and the bass player went through one and I went through the other one, because we couldn’t afford a PA. That’s probably where my shrieks come from, because I was just trying to be heard in the punk club.
What kind of songs do you like to sing along to when you’re in the car ?
R&B, probably.
Any particular era ? ’90s ? More like now ?
All the eras. There’s like a cherry from each year, maybe.
Who are the good R&B singers to sing to in the bath ?
Oh my God, there’s so many. I love Chaka Khan. R&B unites the families, doesn’t it ? It’s the one music everybody – well, most people – like. So I like this kind of driving in the car, really loud, and everybody singing along. And R&B’s good for that, and you can just disappear into the song and you don’t hear the sound of your voice that much. So I think that’s quite cathartic.
So last one for me before we hand it out to the participants.
[whispers] Kelela. I could go on forever.
I’ve heard you talk about the importance of being the same inside and out in order for you to be able make the music that you make and be creative. I think that’s a really interesting kind of transparency to get, and I wondered how you achieved that. What do you have to do to get yourself to the point where you are inside and out ?
Yeah, you made it sound so simple. Yeah, obviously, like all of us, we’re all trying to do this. It’s just a work in progress, isn’t it ? I tend to find that the subconscious or the literal stuff comes first. That’s usually the way it goes. And then you go, “Wow, what was that ?” That beast – that beast – comes out, and you have to define it, or is it some gentle playful insect thing in you that comes out and you go, “Oh, where does that come from ?” And then you just try to match the outside and the inside slowly by just – I find colors really helpful. You know, just surround myself with – because that’s something that’s really easy to change and doesn’t cost money : stop wearing your red t-shirt and start wearing your blue one.
80% of me making music is just me on my own, just on ProTools, in my laptop, on Sibelius.
And also, obviously, the music you listen to, I find that really telling : You listen to an album forever and it’s just giving you this vitamin and you don’t know why, and one morning you wake up and put it on and it’s annoying. And then you have to find another album, and you go, “What ? Wow. Ok. What was that ? What is it in me that I can relate to this more than that now ?” I’m just like anyone else. Also, through talks with friends, of course. I’ve got really, really good friends that we talk a lot. You just try to sort of work out this murder mystery your psyche is. To try and keep in time with the inside and the outside, but to be honest I always feel like I’m two months behind – or even two years.
When I DJed last night, I was actually thinking, “Fuck, all this stuff is there that I really crave but I’m not writing this stuff right now, what’s going on with me ?” And then I’m actually thinking, “Ok, why is that ? Why is there something there that you haven’t captured ?” It never ends. It’s always one more riddle to solve, I think.
That’s what keeps it interesting, right ?
So do we have the microphones ready to be passed around and do we have the first question ? We have one or two questions. So we’ll go over to this side first.
Hi. Thank you for the lecture. You said earlier that the way you work is very intuitive, and I can relate to that. Are there times in composition or in post-production where you stop being intuitive and it’s more planned and well-thought and formulaic ?
Yeah, for sure. Like what Emma was saying earlier, 80% of me making music is just me on my own, just on ProTools, in my laptop, on Sibelius. But then when I’m ready to involve other people, it becomes a little bit more like that, like, it feels a little bit like I’m a host, like I’m inviting people in, and I’m making sure there is that connection with me and what the person is making. And then also taking the song through arrangements and rehearsing with the musicians and then mixing the album and then mastering it, you probably listen to each song – I’ve never counted, it’d be interesting to count that sometimes – but you hear each song, like, 100 times. To be honest, the last 85 times, I’m working with a pot on my head, which is sort of looking at it from the outside, and I’m being the facilitator. And I stop to think, “Oh my God, I feel guilty, I should be somewhere very inspiring and creative, somewhere in a bush, running around naked singing, why am I not doing that ? Why am I stuck in a mastering suite in Hackney ?” But then I try to look at it like, “I’m a protector ?”
It’s kind of like when you have kids, you have to take them to the doctor, to decide what schools they go to, and you try not to be too bossy about it, but still you want to influence it, and you have to follow your child all the way into the 2030s and even further, and that’s what it feels like I’m doing in the mastering suite. I’ve always, since my first album, been there for the whole mixing process, for the whole mastering process. And all of it, to really make sure to be really communicative. That’s definitely another side to my character, it’s not just a songwriting character.
Thank you for the lecture. Personally, of recent, I’ve started to take the direction when I’m getting ideas, let’s put the kick where the snare is, or put the snare where the kick is, or put it in 5/4, the pass that’s sort of uncomfortable going forward with it, as opposed to the comfortable route. I find myself experimenting like that. Do you embrace the uncomfortable route, or do you know from the beginning, is the picture clear, and that’s what you want to do ?
Sometimes songs come and it’s like, whew, they come in a moment. But that’s actually pretty rare for me. I mean, songs like “All Is Full Of Love,” for example, I basically wrote and recorded in one afternoon, in two hours, but then again, you mustn’t forget, that it took a whole two years of preparing for that moment in other ways. But I have to say, I understand what you’re saying. Most of my songs it’s the other way around, where I’m experimenting and I’m trying a lot of different things and then I’ll just figure it out.
Björk - All is Full of Love
I’m actually really slow how I work, and I really try to make time work for me. Like, I never work probably more than four hours a day. I’m not saying that’s the right thing to do, that just works for me, and I just try to be really clear and then do other stuff. I think sometimes I come from an instrument point of view, like what you’re saying, like, “Oh, now I’m just going to play with choirs, and I’ll just think about the sound of the voice,” and do a thousand things like that, and I’ll end up wanting to write a melody on one of them. But I would have to say the musician I am, because I am a vocalist, been singing since I was five or something, I kind of start from that point a lot. But what you’re saying, switching bass drums for snares, snares for bass drums, like I was trying to say that earlier to Emma, I do that quite a lot. For example, for Vulnicura I took a lot of my improvisational vocal lines and put them into Melodyne, into MIDI, and then put them into the strings, and made them into string arrangements. I sort of like that translation back and forth, and I do that quite a lot. And I think that is quite informative. Sometimes you get to play with your fingers, sometimes you get to sing, sometimes... any approach possible.
Hello. I just wanted to thank you, first of all, for existing. You’ve been such a wonderful role model for women singers and producers and everything all over the world. For me, at least, since I was a little child. The interview you gave to Pitchfork a couple of years ago, in which you talk about the things you’ve been through as a women in music, I don’t know if you’re aware how that has sparked such a beautiful movement now, especially in electronic music. There’s been a fourth wave of feminism going around, and I don’t know if you’re aware how powerful an individual can be as a role model, really. Thank you for that. I don’t know if you really have any comments, if you know about this.
Thank you, that’s very flattering. Thank you. I mean, like I’ve said before, I think I come from my mom, who was very radical, and like what we’ve said before I was protesting when I was ten, about women not getting paid as well as guys. So I’m kind of spoiled that in Iceland there was a lot of battles fought, and I felt like they’d been fought, and from now on women would be fine, and it was time do things. Not moan, but to go and get shit done. And that’s sort of what I’ve tried to do. Like, every time there’s been some hindrance I thought, “Okay, so I’ll just do double what the guys do.” And when there’s another hindrance it’s “Okay, I’ll just do triple what the guys do.”
And then, what I felt a little bit in the air three years ago, was I was being approached by girls and sort of seeing online this kind of new wave of feminism, where they were maybe almost upset that I was making it look easy, you know ? Because they were actually finding it really hard. I was like, “Oh, okay.” There I was all these years trying to think the best thing to do for women was to make it look easy, even though it was really, really hard, and just to give hope by just getting shit done and not moaning and just doing it, you know ? And then I thought, “Okay, I also have a daughter,” who is 14 now, and I thought, “Okay, I feel like a copycat here, and I should actually say, ‘You know what ? It actually sucks.’”
And so that moment, that girl who did the interview with me for Pitchfork, they asked me a lot of very confrontational questions about it. Usually I would have just changed the subject or done something else, because sometimes feminism can be a bit boring, but it felt like the time and place where moaning would actually make a difference. Because I think it’s really important to pick your moaning moments, where they can actually be productive and progressive and flip. And then you also have to be careful to stop moaning – what’s that story, “wolf, wolf, wolf ?” If you just moan all the time people just become numb to it.
But I think I can really feel change now, and in Iceland there is like a huge group of girl rappers called the Reykjavíkurdaetur, and there’s a lot of girls doing their own stuff, and I really, really feel… Just watching this whole presidential debate, I can really see the confrontation Mr. Trump has gotten, and Bill Clinton and his friend Monica. I think five years ago that would have been dealt with very differently. You know, like, Hillary would have been framed for the Monica crime and Trump would have gotten away with loving women, in his own particular way. I really think there’s a big change, you know, an avalanche of change. I’m all for, “Let’s just do it. Let’s get it done.”
Thank you so much
Do we have a second microphone as well, sorry ?
Hi, I’m over here. I have a question. I was really intrigued to hear you talk about Sufi poetry as something you were interested in, or a source of inspiration for you. I’ve read a lot of Rumi in the past year. I’ve been kind of obsessed with Rumi, and the richness and quantity of his work has been really important to me. I was wondering if there were any other Sufi poets that you read or that are important in your life ?

Yeah, I mean, I definitely had a phase where I was reading a lot of it. Maybe around Biophilia – Hafiz, for sure. I liked the immediate – you know, it’s so immediate, and how it was for the people. And obviously I liked the fact that they were writing poems 700 years ago about galaxies and atoms and I’m like, “Yes, rock on !” But I think what I liked most about it was the celebrational aspect. Actually, me and my friend Oddný Eir, the philosopher, author I mentioned earlier, we were laughing and she had this theory where we put on a scale all the religions, and on this side was the most masculine religion – we are all both feminine and masculine, just to make that clear – and that was Zen Buddhism. Because it’s all about zooming out and distancing yourself from emotion and being abstract as possible. And then on the other end of the scale is Sufism, where it’s all about being as immersed in the moment as possible, like falling in love with this glass, and falling in love with this tree, and falling in love with this moment, and getting drunk on poetry, or whatever. So it’s kind of the opposite realm.
But I think that Sufism is about getting so feverish about falling in love with everything in life, and the celebrational aspect, that it actually flips into you feeling empty and simple and pure. Zen Buddhism is totally the opposite, where it’s trying to detach itself from all feelings – detach itself, detach itself – and if he does his homework and meditates for a skillion years he actually flips and gets nirvana, where he feels immersed by the universe and everything. So it’s actually the same thing, but the polarization. We were just chatting about this, and I just found it really, really interesting. I have this tendency to criminalize detachment and admire immersiveness. Then I just kind of have to take the piss, especially of myself, and just say, “Listen, it actually is all the same thing, but just two sides of the same coin.” So I find that really exciting with Sufism.
Sorry, did you not have a question ?
Can I ask ? Hi. Thanks for your DJ set yesterday, I really enjoyed it. My question is about how it was like to meet naturalist David Attenborough and work with him. I’m really interested to hear some stories about that.
Obviously, we met a few times through the years. He was kind of my childhood hero. Obviously, me being brought up in nature in Iceland and walking 40 minutes to school in any weather, and that was normal for me, and seeing someone on telly talking about that world as if it has just as much rights as the indoor, urban world, was like, “Yes ! I’ve got one on my team.” And then, slowly being very infectious by his enthusiasm for life. It’s very infectious. I think he’s a very warm person, and obviously he’s very inspiring, too. He’s still 90, going in helicopters to Galapagos. Way to go, right ? What can I say ? Happy birthday, David. It’s his birthday this May, right ?
One of my prime inspirational moments has been a moment on the dancefloor, a moment like that, where you just get lost in it all.
Hello. Thank you so much for being here, I think we’re just so privileged to be hanging out with you. I just wanted to ask about how you were talking about letting go, getting to that 1000% thing with singing or performing or any aspect of expressing your music. I was wondering if you have any advice for practicing that, and being able to just let go immediately, just go for it.
Yeah, like I said before, at these events I drink a thousand coffees, and I’m probably guilty of making it all sound really simple. But it’s easy to sometimes talk about things afterwards, right ? But I definitely have issues like everyone. I pick my daughter up from school, I go to family birthday parties, all these everyday things. You trying to find the sublime in that can be tricksy, you know ? I tend to go on walks outside. That’s really helpful for me, and when I’ve traveled I’ve found it very hard to be in cities because of this reason. That’s why I quite like being in cities by water, because it’s quite easy… When you walk by water, it’s maybe not even about the water, but when you walk by the ocean, at least 180 degrees is empty. It’s about space more than anything else.
But solitude is not the only way. That’s one of the reasons I love DJing, especially with friends where we’re all doing it together and it’s not like me onstage, but more getting lost in that moment. One of my prime inspirational moments has been a moment on the dancefloor, a moment like that, where you just get lost in it all. I really love feeling small and trusting the universe or whatever, or “that song,” the particular song you’re listening to very loudly, you just merge into it and become part of a flow, and then you get rid of this burden that life sometimes can be. But like anyone, I’m trying every day and I’ve got different methods. One method works for a year and then it doesn’t work anymore, and I just basically do my best. Confessionals with friends, one-on-ones, they are pretty epic and helpful too. Anything helps, right ?
Hi, thank you for being here. I’m really interested in your visual work and symbolism. I know it plays a big role in your art, and I was wondering if a mask, or the mask, means something, or if they have a story or there’s a story behind them.
I think my visual work has mostly been with collaborators, and I think the way I look at it is I was in bands for ten years, and then I started being bossy with my music, and wanting to make my own music, mostly myself, or at least 80 or 90%. And then the visual thing became more collaborative, like group work. But at the end of the day, the directors I work with, and the photographers, they have the authorship. I like that.
The masks is something I probably started doing myself. I would both buy masks and find them and then make some very simplistically myself, and they would stand for different things. And then my collaborator and partner-in-crime James Merry, who is here with us now, actually didn’t sleep for one night, and presented me in the morning with a mask, like a surprise. And I was like, “What !” Kind of what I was trying to do myself but didn’t have the craft talent to do myself. but then he obviously took it way further. That sort of collaboration started… Like, for example, the mask I’m wearing now he made, and it started from me wanting to make something come out of my vocal cords, and it was that simple. That’s what I said, and then he totally did everything.
Sometimes it’s really just basic like that. And then, when I feel this connection like I do with James – which is really intense and really strong, one of the most strongest connections I’ve felt – the best thing you can do is you just let people rip. And most of the masks now that James has done, he’s totally done in his own space, and they come from his own ideas. But they are kind of based on this connection that we have, and I think that’s probably why it works with this period, and probably with my face, and probably stuff that I don’t know about. But obviously, the mask on its own is a very interesting thing, because it’s a way to hide, but also a way to reveal. I’ve felt like I’ve got burned from the amount of photographs that are taken of me, and it’s kind of with phones and selfie culture and the internet. I go to a concert, and I can feel the [impersonates a camera clicking] around me the whole night. It’s a really weird energy. Having a mask, I feel more protected. I feel like I can be more myself, and accept the fact that part of my job is being public. I get that – it’s self-inflicted, right ? But I also think it’s important to make it yours.
I think with celebrity and with the selfie and blah, blah, blah… One thing the internet has done in the last ten years, fifteen years, is it’s emphasized that each celebrity is different. Actually, you know, fifteen years ago before people had laptops, people just presumed all celebrities were the same. “I want my autograph, I want to take my photo with you.” It would be the same demands on celebrities 24/7. One thing that’s good about the internet is that each person is different now. People know, “Okay, don’t bother this person. She doesn’t like that, she just wants to live her own life.” And then there are the other people who want to be photographed a hundred times a day, and that’s okay. I think the mask is kind of my, instead of moaning about that, is actually make it into something that’s fun and creative and also collaborative, because I really love working with people, and it’s really been a blessing and a privilege to see someone as talented as James Merry blossom.
Hi. Hae, takk fyrir ad vera herna med okkurspeaks. You spoke earlier about nationality and time, how you embrace your nationality but still don’t want to become patriotic, like fodurlandsrunk or something. I was wondering if you could just elaborate on how to… Because I’ve been listening to all of these participants, and I listen to them, and it’s like, “This really sounds like it’s from Cape Town, this sounds like it’s coming from Tokyo,” but at the same time… Basically, if you could elaborate on how to embrace your roots without, you know, doing it too much, I guess.

Thank you, that’s a good question. I think it’s something you re-evaluate over and over again, and you have to adjust it all the time, because it can be a crutch. You know, I could just be wearing a woolen sweater with a Viking helmet and it would be a little lazy, perhaps. But then, you can’t go away from it too much, because that informs me a lot, who I am. My accent in English will always be a bit dodgy. My outlook – for example, my relationship with nature – it’s really hard to explain it sometimes to foreigners, because they think it’s some hippie, “Let’s all move into a cave with a guitar and butterflies.” It’s like, “No, that’s not what it’s about.” Actually, nature in Iceland is hardcore. There’s nothing soft about volcanic explosions and an earthquake – it’s brutal. I think collaborating with nature is more about, in Iceland we’ve got so much space. We don’t really have animals, we don’t really have trees, we don’t have skyscrapers. It’s just empty. We just have geology screaming in our faces, which is actually pretty brutal. It’s nothing hippie-dippie, it’s not that romantic at all.
I think you’ll always be from where you are, and sometimes it’s most beautiful when it shows itself without you being too conscious about it. It’s not too organized, you know ? But then I will contradict that and say it’s good to know where you’re from once in a while. Like, for example, when I did the string arrangements for Homogenic I was like, “Okay, I’m going to do these sorts of songs we know, and all these romantic, national songs all the Icelandic people sing when they’re drunk. I was actually with Bobby, Haxan Cloak, he came to Iceland, and we ended up drunk outside a bar two weeks ago, and there was no after-party. We literally stood on the main street, and it was a group of 15 people who actually didn’t know each other that well doing different harmonies and some really difficult choral Icelandic songs, just improvising the harmonies and jumping in-between alto or soprano or whatever. Just screaming, top of their lungs, with their really drunk and warbly voices. We’ve all been there, right ? Yes. But that’s definitely part of what we are.
And I hear it – for example, I just listened to a Jóhann Jóhannsson album last night before I DJed, and it was some choral music there. I think you embrace, but if it’s too much you walk away from it. You embrace it, you walk away from it. And then, it also means different things. I’m sure coming from Cape Town, it can be amazing to be associated with Die Antwoord or – I can’t remember what that film was called, District 9 or whatever – and that’s cool for three years, and on your fourth you’re just really bored of it. That’s not what it’s about. It’s actually about my grandmother in the suburbs and that particular tea we used to drink. It’s just an ongoing process that you have to be keep being truthful. If it turns you on, it works, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t work. It just has to be something like that.
Can I ask ? I’m here in the back. Thanks for the lecture. I have two quick questions for you. The first one is that I reckon during the process of shaping your concept you’ve always taken consideration of other elements in different forms of art, like visual art or design, like your collaboration with Andrew and Alexander. I’m just curious that, living in the era that definitely overflows with information, how do you filter all these information sources and pick the one that would serve you, to shape your concept and realize your concept, and how does your relationship with your team and your collaborators help you and support you to realize those ? The second question – and please skip it if it’s too personal – it’s in regard to having children, because I’ve heard a lot of female artists, especially those that have decided not to have children until their very late years or through their life, think that having kids can be an obstacle for realizing their career or their artistic goals. How do you feel about having kids and the role of having family in your life ? Do you think having kids is a trouble ? I mean, of course it’s a loving experience, but I’m sure there’s a lot of downsides to it, too, and I’d like to know your ideas about. Thank you.
I’ll first do the collaboration question. The best way to describe it is kind of like friendships. Any given year – I don’t know if you look back five years or something and you go, “Okay, that year I felt really connected to John and Susan, but Paul and Anna weren’t really, I just didn’t get them, I just don’t know why.” And then five minutes later it will be the other way around. You’ll be, “Oh, I feel so connected to Anna now, we really resonate and we can talk for eight hours and we still seem to be nourishing each other and I don’t know why.” And I think with my collaborators it’s very similar. You bump into several people for various different reasons, and then you do something together, and once it’s done you’re like, “Oh, are we going to have more conversation or not ?” I think it’s very important to be really respectful of everyone’s journey. Everybody has their own journey to take, and you have to let them, after each project, have this feeling that we might not work together again, and then rediscover, “Actually, our next paths do continue a little bit together.” For me, I’m really blue-eyed.
I really believe in this thing, where if you find this point where it’s nourishing both, usually in very, very different areas, but it sort of has the feeling. But I think you can really trust yourself instinctively the same way as you trusted in friendships. You know if you are being on the receiving end or the other way around, if it’s lopsided, if you’re just sitting there listening to someone’s problems for years but it’s not going the other way. It’s like, “Hmm, there’s something not right about this.” And then the other way around, you’re getting so much from this person but you’re not capable of feeding the, you know, and that’s really sad and it just feels wrong.
I think it’s the same with collaborations, and I just feel really, really, really blessed that I bumped into Alejandro, Arca. He actually reached out to me and then we are still on this journey together. Every morning I’m like, “Okay, maybe it’s over now,” but no, we have still one more thing to do together, and one of the reasons is that he’s obviously doing his work a billion percent, and I’ve been able to be a third ear, and then it goes the other way around, you know ? So it feels, at least still, like it’s really nourishing both ways. It’s a really different story with Andy Huang. He’s obviously someone who’s just so talented and so fertile and so technically incredible, it doesn’t matter what riddle you put on the table, he always, always solves it. And anything we do together I just feel really lucky that he put a loop on his own mission for me, and hopefully I feel he feels like it’s his mission to, you know, and that it’s something he can put his name on and be proud of. I don’t know if that answers your question.
With children... I obviously come from a family. I have six younger brothers and sisters, and then my son is actually older than my youngest brother. I’ve just always had a lot of kids pulling my skirt while I’m working, and I feel a bit odd if there’s not one person doing this. That’s sort of something I’m used to. Family’s really strong in Iceland, but also you’ve got a lot of babysitters. I feel sorry for people who are in cities with maybe no relatives there to help them out. It’s hard. Or maybe one, you know ? I’ve had all of my six brothers and sisters babysit for me or come with me on tour at some time, so it’s a family affair.
I was really lucky in the Sugarcubes, when I had a baby and we first went on tour, nobody asked me, “Are you going to leave him behind ?” Nobody asked that question, and I only noticed ten years later that was actually quite a feminist thing. It was just, of course we’d take him along, and of course we’d bring our babysitter, and of course the tour will pay for the babysitter, it won’t come off my wages. It’s like a communal thing. I was probably spoiled in that way, but maybe the good side of that is hopefully I could inspire someone. I know what you mean. I have looked up to women, artists, especially the generation before me born in the ‘40s, who are like, “Okay, the only way to be an artist is to have this sacrifice, and not have a child.” I get it. I probably would have done the same if I was born in those years. I don’t know. Who knows ? But maybe it’s also the cultural thing in Iceland, I’m not sure.
I believe that you can have a family, you can have kids, you can make music, you can do all of the things together, and they should coexist. I don’t believe in this isolation of things, I believe in the flow between everything, and that it’s actually good for kids to see a parent that, “Actually, I don’t have time for you now, I have to finish this thing.” It’s good for them to see a person do that and deal with life, you know ? That’s the best school sometimes. That’s my answer, I guess.
Sorry, I got really excited. “Please here !” Hello. My question is related to what you were saying about redirecting public exposure, being a public figure and redirecting that into a creative force. I was wondering, how do you deal with the public expectation and the media expectations, and maybe your own expectations every time you are involved in a new project, and if that maybe gets in the way of your creative force.
You mean as a musician, or visually ?
As a musician, yeah. Like, every time you’re making a new album, if you have expectations like… We all have expectations when you’re about to make a new album, right ? We all want to hear what’s the next Björk album. So I’m wondering if maybe you feel pressure from the media or from the public, I don’t know.
I actually don’t feel pressure from the media and the public, and I think I would like to thank that for being for ten years in bands. I was in the background in bands, and I was a lot younger than the other members, and I didn’t realize until later that was actually a really good school. I saw the hard way that if you do things that you’re supposed to do, it always goes really wrong. We actually went through a couple of times, “Oh, lets do the album people think we should make now,” and it just went horribly wrong. So I actually learned that. I was actually quite late when I started doing my own music – I was 27 – and then I was like, “Okay, the one lesson I learned was I am the only person who’s me, and I’m the only one who knows what seeds are growing inside me.” When you release an album, it’s like the plant is ripe and there’s fruits and shit, but if you’re giving oranges this time around, it doesn’t mean like the seeds in your stomach are another orange tree. You are the only one who knows what that is, so you’re sort of responsible for protecting that, because you’ll know. How should Jack and Jill know ? They don’t know. They’re not you. I think that’s very important.
I mean, I use time a lot. When it comes to my work methods, I really use time a lot. Like, I’ll do a song and I’ll work on it for half an hour, and I’ll just leave it and I’ll work on some other song. A week later, I’ll be like, “Am I ready ? No, I’m not ready.” Three weeks later I’ll be like, “Today is the day.” And I’ll maybe work on it for only half an hour. I think there’s a window that you feel you can actually add to that conversation, and then when you’re just going into some routine, or some conveyor belt behavior, just stop. Just go and have an orange juice or something. Just leave it. What I’m trying to say, in a very clumsy way, is that if you wait, and look at it again in three months time, you can be the other person that sees it from the outside. You can be both the maker and the critic. The way to be both of these things yourself is to use time.
Some songs, like for example “Atom Dance,” it took me four years to make that song. It didn’t make Biophilia. It made Vulnicura. I think the key is just to leave it and wait for the right moment, until it’s ripe, but not stand there and go, “Be ready the way I want now !” Nothing will happen. It has to be the other way around, I think. Does that make sense ?
Okay, I think one more question. Where is it coming from, which direction ?
Hello. Thank you for the performance yesterday and thank you for the lecture. My question for you is, seeing how the universe is blessing this era by allowing humans to reach this actualized form of Singularity-
Sorry, can you say that again ? I didn’t hear it. Can you be a little clearer ?
Sorry. Seeing as how the universe is blessing this era by allowing humans to reach this actualized form of Singularity, how much of that is allowing artists to immerse their audience in their subjective dimensional states of channeled external energy ?
I’m sorry, English is my second language so I don’t fully understand it.
I think the question is about, “Why is this moment in time a good time for people to be making music ?”
Well, it’s many art forms, so it’s like speaking on a multi-sensory level. So it’s not just music, it’s also visuals. It’s also like in the exhibition you have, there’s the headset, which also is motion-tracking the head of the individual wearing it, so it’s complete immersion in a different environment that the artist has made for the observer or the audience to be able to absorb through their spiritual connection, or through their external sources, whether it be demons or saints that are embedded inside of the subjective truth of the artist. So, that’s what I’m trying to get at.
I would say that the digital exhibition is very impulsive, actually, and very collaborative. I’m doing it with a lot of people. I feel really right about it. It is very punk, and we knew from the start it would have a lot of mistakes, but it kind of had to be mistakes made out in the open, and I think in that sense it is maybe what you are saying. Like, it’s a child of 2016, very much. Like I’ve said before, Vulnicura was made in this bubble at home, very protected, and the only album I have that has chronology. So it felt like if there was any structure of any album I’d done that could take this kind of experimentation, it would be this format, VR. And I think also, because it’s so experimental and it’s so many companies we work with, with so many different softwares and goggles and groups of teams, it’s been one of the most complex things we’ve done, ever. I kind of knew that when we headed into that world, so I felt, well, Vulnicura could take it, because it is that sort of old school, singer-songwriter, almost Greek tragedy-like narrative. It’s almost so old school that it could take this crazy-ass improv tech session. I hope so. It is still in the making.
We still have a few videos we haven’t completed, and think everything will make more sense, because there’s one, like a homepage, where you see the whole thing when the album comes out, there’s also going to be room for the string album, for the notation, for all these other aspects. You can listen to it linear, or not linear. I will then try to update and make it of that moment, which will probably be 2017 by this time. But maybe that answers your question in another way. I do think it is a little bit a role of the artist to use the tools that you are using in your everyday life, if it’s a phone or a laptop or VR or iChat or whatever it is. Skyping.
Also, it’s just more honest, and just the fact that you don’t know. Already, strings are actually kind of lazy, because they’ve already gone through this process. The symphony orchestra was the VR of the 1600s or 1700s, because it was like this machine of 40 people in a room all partaking in one thing. I’m sure there were some horrible string songs. You had these composers writing a whole symphony in their heads, and they’d never even heard it. They didn’t have any Sibelius. And then they would hear it after ten years, and it’s gone through a lot of trial-and-error, and there’s probably a lot of stuff in it that didn’t work, that was horrible, you know ? The things that we are listening to today are the few moments, 5%, where it actually was a really good idea.
I like roots and history. My voice is the same human voice as has been for thousands of years, so I try to escape that a lot of time, but believe me, it doesn’t work that much. So I already have a lot of history, and I have strings, and I was in indie bands. But I like also to have this conversation and take a risk in being part of the conversation of the moment, and make mistakes in the open. I think it’s important for an artist to be in that heat, and with that sort of risks you make a lot of mistakes, but also the things you’re proudest of on your deathbed are probably those sort of things. Did that answer it ?
Yeah, to a degree. Thank you.
Well, you’re dealing with the universe. Really all that’s left to say is Björk, thank you very, very much.

publié dans Red bull music academy